Q: Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question?
A: Why shouldn’t they?
Reading Wild Milk (Dorothy, a publishing project, Oct. 2018), Sabrina Orah Mark’s new collection of short stories, I couldn’t get that joke above out of my mind. It’s not only because the stories themselves are infused with the Yiddish sensibility and domestic humor of the Borscht Belt comics, but also because all of these small tales are not so much told as they are posed. Beyond their narrative snap and ingenious conceits, Orah Mark’s stories—rich in language, synaptic leaps, and, yes, humor—resonate into the larger questions of our lives and, indeed, become an interrogation of our specific cultural moment. The questions in Wild Milk beget further questions, which in turn beget … well, you understand.
I was glad to speak to Orah Mark over the last few months about her new book, jokes, puzzling presidents, and how writing fiction is like eating a complicated sandwich.
The Millions: I read a blog post from 2017 in which you write about the frustration of attempting to sell a short story collection without “a commercially viable novel” alongside it. Can you talk about what happened between then and now, and specifically your experience with Dorothy a publishing project?
Sabrina Orah Mark: About two hours and 37 minutes after posting my “Notes on Rejection,” I received an email from Dorothy accepting Wild Milk. It was eerie and wonderful. At the end of my post, I wrote: “Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble. And he will swallow this pebble. And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly. And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly. That would make me happy. Even if I never know.” And as much as I believe Wild Milk still has the chance to one day turn into a magic pebble, I am so grateful Dorothy is giving it the opportunity to first be a book.
Arriving from the Land of Poets, the phrase “commercially viable” was a strange-sounding cough I’d hear and cringe and back away from. I mean, I get it. We need to eat. But it’s boring and depressing to imagine my stories wandering around with price tags around their necks. I heard over and over again: “We love it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” As if Wild Milk was an odd child, growing older and older in the living room, eating snacks and studying a dying language. “This one,” I imagine a mother might say, “is a miracle going nowhere.”
But Dorothy knocked. Dorothy said, “Come with us.”
TM: In the same post from 2017, you talk about a story from Wild Milk called “For the Safety of Our Country,” relating it to a question you got from your son’s school principal about how the current state of our country has affected your surrealism. Has it?
SOM: The current state of our country has pierced a hole through my surrealism, and when I look through the hole I can now see my own face staring back at me. Problem is, the face staring back at me now has a hole through its forehead. Whether this hole is for planting or just an abyss I’m not at liberty to say. What I can say is that these days I’m writing from less of a distance. My first collection of poems, The Babies, was haunted by the Shoah. By something that seemed to be over, and far away. Wild Milk knows the present is thick with the past, and has seen what’s Impossible suddenly holding Possible’s soft hand. Sharing its water. Reflecting its face. Speaking its language. Sleeping in its bed.
TM: In that story, a whole new batch of presidents enters the White House. There are thirsty presidents, humming presidents, beautiful presidents, see-through presidents, presidents with faces as blank as almonds. It’s a riot of a story, but I feel like one can’t even say the word “president” anymore without invoking anxiety, heartache, anger, etc. Inherent in the principal’s question is the assumption that the state of things will change the stories we write, but I’m interested in the flip side of that question: how you think the stories we tell might change the state of things, specifically thinking about a story like “For the Safety of Our Country,” which, while it’s a comic gem, I also see as a creature with a defiant sword thrust into the air, a little hero. What might it do?
SOM: Oh, thank you. I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions and use their points to puncture the status quo, we risk everything that is worth being human about.
TM: I’ve heard your stories described as fiction with the hearts of poems, and there’s certainly a sneaky subversive quality to these, an interruption and maybe even a corruption of narrative. But another form I can’t help thinking of is the joke, a form you also seem to be subverting throughout this collection. Jokes often set disparate elements (Mr. Horowitz and his bag of dried apricots in “The Very Nervous Family”; a maid and a collection of snails in “The Maid, The Mother, the Snail & I”) on a course for collision, which becomes the punchline. You often begin along those lines, laying out the elements and establishing trajectories, but most of these stories don’t “wind up” in the way we might expect from a joke or even from micro-narratives. Of course, this, too, is a sort of tension, the way we’ll follow two parallel lines to where they seem to meet on the horizon, but it isn’t what we generally expect from a joke. Were you thinking a lot about jokes as you wrote these stories?
SOM: No one in my family laughs out loud. When my mother and I, for example, are laughing, it’s this gigantic, breathless silence punctuated by sucking gasps. My son Noah says I laugh like Marge Simpson. To an onlooker, I imagine it’s an ugly scene. But inside, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to something I can only describe as a beautiful truth. A good joke should take the breath away. I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny.
TM: I also kept thinking of Jewish jokes, the kind my Uncle Larry used to tell at every gathering, where the punchlines are often less of a relief of tension than an acknowledgement that the state of suffering will continue, is endless; and also an acknowledgement of the fact that Judaism is built around questions, not answers. I’m wondering where you see the stories in Wild Milk fitting into this comedic tradition?
SOM: As a child, I studied Talmud and one thing I was taught to understand is that there is no answer, or if there is an answer the answer is marked with an answerless-ness so vast it’s reminiscent of that place in laughter where you can hardly breathe. A good punchline leaves you off at a stop you never imagined existed. The end, in other words, is just the beginning. And whether you’ll be able to find your way home is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s one essential key to Jewish humor: It gives us this breathlessness—this ha ha holocaust—of a wanderer, of a woman laughing and laughing, doubled over, and crying stop I can’t breathe.
TM: Do you have a favorite joke?
SOM: Here’s one of my favorite jokes. It’s in the last story of my collection. So one old man says to another, what’s red, hangs from a wall, and whistles? I don’t know, what? A herring. But a herring isn’t red. OK, so you paint it red! But a herring doesn’t hang from a wall. OK, so you get a nail and a hammer and you nail it to the wall! But a herring doesn’t whistle. OK! So it doesn’t whistle!
I love this joke because it’s a joke that seems to wonder mid-self what it is, what it is even doing here. Is it a joke, or has it veered off in the direction of another form, like the herring which is and isn’t the punchline to a joke it too has found itself lost inside? This is my relationship to story and to poem, too. I like my stories to discover halfway through they have the heart of poem, or maybe even the lungs of a prayer, or maybe even the eyes of a very, very old animal, or the hat of a missing boy.
Here’s a joke my son told me this morning: Why was the broom late for school? Because it overswept. What’s even better than a great joke is a simple joke told by a little kid because inside the telling is the realization that language can get slippery, dislodge a whole world, turn a broom human-like and late for school. It is like in Waiting for Godot when Vladimir and Estragon find a hat (“now our troubles are over!”) and swap it with their own like jugglers. The hat they find looks as similar to their own hats as overslept looks to overswept. I love that Beckett scene with all my heart because you can feel Vladimir and Estragon trying to know (through the hat) the unknowable parts of themselves, as if wearing a hat that could so easily be mistaken for your own but is not your own hat could shift your perspective ever so slightly so that what keeps not appearing (inside and outside yourself) might suddenly appear.
TM: I want to halt the proceedings, just for a moment. Inspired by the stories in Wild Milk, I’d like to present an interview-inside-an-interview in the form of interrogatives. Answer these however you see fit.
SOM: They had come into our home and rearranged all the furniture. What other choice did we have?
SOM: Edith, Edith, and Edith.
SOM: The year August never turned into September, and just stayed August for 30 extra days.
SOM: Father’s house. On the corner of Orange and Old.
SOM: We waited three months until it began to snow and then we used the snow.
TM: Thank you! OK, back to the previously scheduled programming. Two-pronged question: Are there other writers primarily identified as poets who have written or are writing fiction that you’re following these days? And are there writers of micro-narratives/flash who you’re interested in?
SOM: When I first read Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I thought holy God, because it’s a novel but also it’s a poem but also it’s a wail but also it’s a prayer but also it’s a transcription of two boys’ hearts missing their dead mother, but also it’s the impossible translation of Crow who is grief.
I love poets who trap themselves in unpoetic spaces, like Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, like let’s see what the poet looks like under florescent lighting opening a packet of ketchup. I love contrast and unlikely spaces. At the heart of the Surrealists is this simile: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Comte de Lautréamont), and I guess it’s a simile at the center of me, too.
James Allen Hall and Rachel Zucker and Jenny Boully and Maggie Nelson and Anne Boyer and Carmen Gimenez Smith are some of my favorite poets writing not fiction exactly but really gorgeous, poem-marked prose.
I’m waiting for Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (forthcoming from Catapult), which sounds like a magnificent collision of tears/forms.
TM: A teacher of mine once described micro or flash fiction as stories which contained something that burns really brightly but, by their nature, burns quickly. Your stories are full of what I’d call “image germs” (the lice in “Spells”; the drawing of a mouse in “The Stepmother”) that align with this idea, but there’s also something “slow” contained in them. I don’t always see these “burning” as much as I see them rippling or refracting the way that longer stories or even novels do. I’m wondering, now that you’ve begun writing fiction, if you’re thinking about writing a novel, and if so what that might resemble?
SOM: When I write fiction, I feel like I’m slowly sneaking up on myself in the middle of a cafeteria, and there I am (a poet) quietly eating a terrible and complicated sandwich, and I am like hello, and she (who is me) is like hello, and eventually The Napkin Lady will come by and ask, “Would you like a napkin,” and we will both say yes. We will both say thank you (we’re both polite). I will watch her (poet) eat her terrible and complicated sandwich for a long time. I’ll watch her for practically a whole month to tell you the truth. If I’m patient enough and lucky she’ll give me a bite. Sometimes even an idea or two. Neither one of us will ever use the napkin.
When I write poems I feel like I’m bursting into flames. As a mother of small children, it has become harder and harder to burst into flames. And so right now I’m sticking to the “slow” (as you so beautifully put it) “refraction.”
I will say this, though—there is for me something much, much more dangerous writing fiction. Maybe because for me it’s a radical departure from a form that once kept me very safe (the prose poem). I often think of my stories as what happens after the bottom of a prose poem drops out. It’s like I think I’m standing on solid ground, but no, it’s a gigantic, gaping hole, and in the hole is my whole family and everybody is hungry. And all I have is one bite of the terrible and complicated sandwich. And I’ve already swallowed it. So I better start making something out of nothing and fast. Something to feed everyone I’ve ever loved. Chances are, when it’s over, everyone will be mad at me.
If I ever write a novel it will probably be called The Grandmothers. Some of it is already written.
TM: When I first read the story “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This Is What Happened” in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of modern fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I started laughing at the title and didn’t really stop except to gulp, here and there, at how poignantly you get at sibling and family dynamics. I’m hoping you’ll take me through the writing of this story, talk a little about its genesis and how you wrote your way to its end.
SOM: Oh wow, you’re asking me for the only secret I have left. What I will give away, though, is that you really can get pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can.
Michael Cunningham has long since established himself as a prolific novelist. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his 1998 novel The Hours while others received critical acclaim as well as a loyal fan base. His last novel, 2014’s The Snow Queen, was influenced by a fairy tale, which led him into his latest project.
A Wild Swan and Other Tales is a short collection of folklore set in the modern world, retelling classic stories “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Snow White,” among many others. The tales offer the same thematic warnings that those classics of the 19th century provided.
The author spoke over the phone from his writing space in New York City just before the release of the novel to discuss why he chose to write his first story collection and his writing habits.
The Millions: After writing numerous successful novels, why write your first story collection at this point in your career?
Michael Cunningham: You know, this one came about in a slightly funny way. Penguin did a collection a few years ago with the incredibly odd title My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. They asked 40 different writers to write fairy tales. I obligingly did and I wrote my own version of “The Wild Swan” by Hans Christian Andersen, which is different in my own collection than the Penguin collection.
It was fun. I got a kick out of it. In the years since…Well, sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you get stuck. It happens to everybody. You don’t know what to do next and I have learned just to let it sit for awhile. Don’t panic, don’t force it, just let it go until it starts to suggest its next step to you. But you don’t want to just not write, so I started writing these little fairy tales for fun. Believe me, I don’t often write for just fun. After about five or six [of these stories] throughout the years, I thought that maybe this was sort of a collection.
I wrote a few more and, poof, suddenly it’s November of 2015 and there’s this collection that is coming out. It’s the only book I’ve ever written without really expecting to write a book at all.
TM: You alluded to not writing for fun, but writing as a job. What does a normal writing day look like for you?
MC: I am very regular in my writing habits. I need to be. I get up in the morning. I get up, get dressed, and come to my [writing space] just like a regular citizen with a regular job. Then I get to it. Some days are better than others. I sit here for at least four hours. Sometimes there are five pages, sometimes there is one lame sentence. I always sit here for at least four hours. On a good day, when I’m really cranking, I can go for about six hours. Then I’m done; my brain has turned to mush.
Always in the mornings, first thing. It’s five or six days a week. It’s a little unglamorous, but it works for me.
TM: What’s unglamorous? The space where you write? Is it bare bones or filled with inspiration?
MC: I have a lot of stuff. I have 10,000 books. It’s sort of an object sanctuary. It’s souvenirs and talismans and all kinds of things. My desk faces a wall with a window. Every new project, I sort of put different things on the wall. It’s very intuitive; it’s sort of whatever objects I think I should be looking at while I’m working on whatever I’m working on.
Like right now I’m staring at the wall. There’s a cow’s skull, there’s a little paper rocket ship I made when I was a kid, there’s a picture of the moon, there is a little strand of rosary beads. I couldn’t tell you why those objects, but it just felt right.
TM: Speaking of what feels right: why did these specific fairy tales feel right to interpret?
MC: There was no real organizing principle. There are certainly the ones I love the most as a kid. I asked myself why did I love these more than others. I realized a couple of things. I liked the stories that don’t have rigid, Christian morals like some of them do. I never liked those stories. I like the ones that are a little less finger wagging. I also realized that when I was a kid I was a story junkie. I always had questions about the stories [my parents] read. One persistent one was when we got to the “happily ever after” ending. I would look at my mother or father, whoever was on story duty that night, and ask them to finish the story. They would say that’s the end: that they lived happily ever after. No! What was castle life like? What were their lives like? Happily ever after isn’t enough.
One of the ideas behind this collection, some of them anyway, was what happens after “happily ever after.” The other question that I never tired asking my parents was why would the characters do that. Like in “Rumpelstiltskin” the daughter was forced by the king to spin three looms full of straw to get gold, and if she didn’t do it she would be executed. As a reward, he marries her. I remember at the age of six asking my mother why the character would marry someone who would murder her if she didn’t do this impossible thing.
It was this underlying theme of these reconsidered fairy tales about what happened after they got to the castle and why would the characters do what they do.
TM: Did you want your writing style to mirror that of these traditional fairy tales?
CM: It just depended on what the story needed. In the original fairy tales, there isn’t much dialogue. I used this new slangy dialogue, but I wanted to be faithful to the original. They’re meant as homages. They’re not this wise-ass reconsidering of silly little stories. I took these stories seriously. I wanted to honor their forms to some degree.
TM: And how much of it was your choice to put these stories in this specific sequence?
CM: It’s entirely my choice. I’m open to suggestions. I rearranged these stories several times. I wanted tonal shifts. I finally came up with what felt like the proper order. The only one that isn’t a fairy tale, the one I made up, was the one with a really happy ending. That was always going to be the last one. I kept tinkering with it, but that was always in.
TM: I think the opening was perfect. “Dis. Enchant.” just really struck a chord with me. You write “Most of us are safe…” and relate it to the idea that the average person isn’t what fairy tales happen to.
CM: It was something I realized as I reread the fairy tales. I mean, the forces of evil never bother with ordinary citizens. It’s always maidens and princesses and the well favored. Those are who attract the attention of the forces of evil.
TM: It’s why these stories are so intriguing. It’s about the what happens “ever after” when they are just average again.
TM: You briefly mentioned rereading these. Was there a lot of research involved?
CM: I absolutely went back and reread all of them. I wanted to be familiar with the originals. In a few cases there is more than one version kicking around, so I read both. Yeah, I wanted to be thoroughly familiar with the originals, but once I reread them I put them away. I didn’t go back looking at my version and then checking back to the original. I worked from memory.
TM: A version of “A Wild Swan” was what kicked this whole thing off, but what was the final piece written for this collection?
CM: It was the Snow White one, “Poisoned.”
TM: And what was the most challenging for you?
CM: The most challenging was the “Steadfast; Tin.” It’s difficult to say why. I really wanted to do that one right. It took more drafts than the other ones did. I wanted to find a way to retell the story but stay close to the spirit of the story. That was the toughest part.
TM: Let’s shift away from A Wild Swan to not spoil it for those who haven’t read it and talk about writing in general. A few authors have mentioned to me that they don’t necessarily care about plot, but how it’s delivered. More importantly they care about the characters. What’s your take on this?
CM: It’s always about the characters. One of the things I’ve learned, and, I teach in spring semester, it’s something I always tell my students, it’s that you have fully imagined characters. You know not only what their lives are like, but what they want and what’s getting in the way of what they want. They always, always will produce a story. If you do it in reverse where you have a plot and insert characters into it, it tends to be a little wooden or artificial. The characters don’t feel like real people, but instead employees of the plot.
TM: So what excites you about writing or reading literature today? What are some things you like to see or that you try to include in your works?
CM: It’s a really good question, and a difficult one to answer. It’s never been entirely clear to me. The fundamental composition; the idea of taking ink and paper and the words in the dictionary that are available to everybody, and somehow using those elements to produce something that feels like life is endlessly interesting to me. It was from the moment I started writing. I’ve come to suspect that what we call talent is a little hard to distinguish from this other thing that is this bottomless interest by the problems posed by paint or astrophysics or whatever it is.
I was in an MFA program and there were tremendous writers there. One difference I noticed was that I would sit in a chair and write a sentence thirty or forty times until it seemed less bad.
TM: Do you normally get sparked by a specific sentence? Or are you working on a 1,000 ideas and hope one sticks?
CM: I’ll get an idea: a character or a situation or a vague notion of what people might do and where their lives might take them. I have a number of ideas, not tons and tons of them. What normally happens is that I’ll walk around for a couple of months with these people and their situation, and if they still seem compelling to me after several weeks, I’ll figure that these are my next people for my next book.
TM: Do you have that next idea now?
CM: Oh yeah. I’m about 100 pages into a new one.
TM: What’s the idea?
CM: I’m afraid I can’t [talk about it]. I don’t mean to be coy, but I found it’s never a good idea to talk about a novel at this point of it.
TM: It is a novel and not short stories though?
CM: Oh yeah, it’s a novel. The fairy tales were sort of a fluke for me. I love short stories and I read them all of the time, but I don’t ordinarily write them. It’s difficult for me to make something happen in 15 to 20 pages. I need the bigger arc that the novel provides. Even the short stories of mine that have been published have been chapters from novels.
TM: Let’s move on and talk about Hollywood for a bit. You’ve had a few experiences with it. What’s your overall experience with it?
CM: There have been experiences with it that have been great, and there have been experiences that have been less great. I wouldn’t want to name names, but it’s very different. It’s a business. Publishing is a business, but not on the same level. Publishers are very happy to produce a huge bestseller, but it’s not required. Your editor knows that most books don’t sell a lot of copies. Whereas a movie producer or a TV producer wants to do something good, but they also want it to be a hit. There’s not much interest, at least not with studios, in producing some little oddity that hardly anyone is going to want to see. You’re just working in a more popular form which I get kind of a kick out of.
I always going running back to fiction where the expectations are different. It’s kind of a kick to every now and then to write something that will speak to a broader audience. I especially love TV right now. It’s just an amazing period in television.
TM: How much do you want to spend working in television then?
CM: I’m taking cracks in television. I wrote one episode of Masters of Sex. That was kind of a fluke. They don’t usually invite [outside writers in]. I sold a pilot to Showtime, which I don’t think they are going to make. One thing if you want to write for movies and TV is that most things don’t get made. It’s a gamble. I’ve got a couple of pilots currently in the works, and fingers crossed. You just can’t tell if it’s going to go somewhere or not.
Image courtesy of Michael Cunningham.